Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain & Lightning: Choice Words On Word Choice

“Eighty-seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation….
The Gettysburg Address

Thankfully, Abraham Lincoln was not only a great leader, he was a great writer. So instead of beginning his Gettysburg Address with a cold, lifeless number, he opens on a prayerful note with a turn of phrase adapted from the 90th Psalm of the King James Bible: “Four score and seven.” 

Clearly, Lincoln knew the difference between the almost right word – and, the RIGHT word. A distinction defined by Mark Twain some 25 years later as…”the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” With this thought in mind, in today’s post I offer a few choice words on word choice to help you get more of the right words into your copy and make your writing more engaging, memorable and effective.

Let’s start by looking at a line from the sports section of my local daily, The Columbus Dispatch.  In a story a few years back, the reporter described Dick Vitale’s reaction to being voted into the Basketball Hall-of-Fame. Vitale, explained the writer, “admitted he ‘cried like a baby’ upon learning he was induced.” 

Maybe Vitale’s use of the word baby clouded the writer’s thinking. Because induced is so NOT the right word.  (And yes, in all fairness maybe it was simply a typo. Either way, the end result is the same: poor communication.)

Which leads us to today’s big (but hardly revolutionary) idea: For more effective word choice think harder about the words you choose.

For example, although it’s obvious that the reporter made the wrong choice, what about the writers who penned these lines?

  • This is literally the equivalent of Microsoft coming to your house and locking a CD in your car CD player.
  • More CIOs are disinterested in Linux
  • And I know you didn’t do this just to win an election. And I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead.

How many of these people made the wrong word choice? Actually, that’s a trick question. Because they all did. Yes, you may have read or heard a word used a certain way – even in a prestigious publication, by a noted expert or by the soon-to-be leader of the free world. But that doesn’t mean the word was used correctly. (See my earlier post, Get It Right When You Write (Or Speak): 3 Commonly Misused Words, for more examples like the above.)

As to why the above words are – in Mark Twain’s manner of speaking, lightning bugs – I’ll go over one of them: enormity.

The first two definitions listed in my Oxford American Dictionary (OAD) are - 

  1. Great wickedness, the enormity of this crime.
  2. A serious crime, these enormities.

In all fairness, the OAD lists “enormous size, hugeness” as its third definition.  But it follows this listing with a usage note that reads: “Careful writers do not use this word in the last meaning. They use enormousness.”  I don’t know about you, but I expect presidential speechwriters to fall into the careful writers group.

Now for two specific word choice tips:

  1. Choose small, simple words –

The Gettysburg Address is 271 words long. Two hundred and twenty of them, 81%, are just one syllable. My advice? For more effective word choice think like Lincoln. Think small:

Instead of writing “utilize,” “peruse,” “ascertain,” write “use,” “read,” “find out.”

Now am I advising you to never use big words?  No, of course not.  But in most cases small words will serve your purposes better.  And here’s one reason why:

“The more simply and plainly an idea is presented, the more understandable it is – and therefore the more credible it will be.”
Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear – By Dr. Frank Luntz

My second word choice tip is this:

  1. Use mainly nouns and verbs and vigorous, active-voice words

Strunk and White in their classic book, The Elements of Style, put it this way:

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs….It is nouns and verbs that give to good writing its toughness and character.”

As to the active voice, legendary copywriter Herschell Gordon Lewis lays down the law in his “Active/Passive Rule.”

“Unless you specifically want to avoid reader involvement in your message, always write in the active voice.”

For instance:

  • Instead of writing: “Once the button has been clicked, the order is generated immediately and an e-mail confirmation will be sent automatically to you.”
  • Write: When you click the button, we immediately generate your order and automatically send you an e-mail confirmation.

Notice the difference the active voice makes? Notice also how the active voice makes the writing more “you-centric.” Simply put, active verbs keep your reader involved and improve credibility and response rates.

For example, I seldom use the word “allows” because it’s a passive, “permission granting” word. I prefer enables or makes it possible. Unlike “allows,” enables and makes it possible  are active and empowering. As a result, these words are more likely to keep your reader involved with your copy.

So -

  • Instead of writing “Study Software allows you to learn faster by organizing exam notes as concept maps….” write “Study Software enables you to learn faster by organizing exam notes as concept maps….”
  • Instead of writing “SmartList To Go allows you to create, view and manage databases on your handheld.” write “SmartList To Go makes it possible for you to create, view and manage databases on your handheld.”

Words are powerful business tools. And the good news is that no matter who you are – Bill Gates or Bill Bailey – you have the same access to these powerful tools as anybody else

So, to greatly improve your odds of catching lightning on a page or a screen and gaining the response you seek, remember today’s big idea and two tips:

For more effective word choice, think harder about the word you choose.

  1. Choose small, simple words.
  2. Choose mainly nouns and verbs and vigorous active-voice words.

Follow these recommendations and while your words might not make history…they will be duly noted, better remembered – and, most importantly, more effective.

Recommendations for additional reading:
The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words
, By Ronald C. White Jr.
Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear
,
By Dr. Frank Luntz
On the Art of Writing Copy, Third Edition
, by Herschell Gordon Lewis
The Elements of Style
, by William Strunk and E.B. White

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